We had to have the sex talk, or Prostitutes and Pastries, 2008

Ah, the history of marriage and sex.  We talked about the sexual scene in classical Athens today, a place and time when one educated man of means might have a wife and children at home, a prostitute or two he liked to visit, and a boyfriend at the Agora.  We had to, because when Plato talks about what happens when a community gives up a simple life of simple foods, simple, dwellings, and monogamy, he lists among the consumer goods (I’m quoting from Robin Waterfield’s translation) “all sorts of furniture like couches and tables, and a wide selection of savouries, perfumes, incense, prostitutes, and pastries” (373a).  That, and Glaucon, one of the participants in the dialogue, apparently fought well at the battle of Megara, spurring his man-lover to write a poem about him.  Both of those entities gave us occasion to talk about the economies of sex that arise in systems where women are legally inferior and to note the assumptions that we moderns usually make about the inherent dignity of those entities with human bodies.

Sex is by no means the main subject of my class or even one of the really important ones, but I think it does help us read texts like Plato and Paul and Epictetus well if we know the different sexual expectations of an ancient Athens or Corinth or Rome, and it at least opens the possibility that smart people at some time might have thought of sex and marriage in terms other than the biological-deterministic ones that talking heads of the right and the left seem to assume in 2008.  That, and it’s just fun dropping that kind of stuff on eighteen-year-olds.  I have to admit that.

I’ve given the class their comments, and now tonight I release the grades to them.  I did lay out my policies for challenging marks, so I imagine that we can continue to learn and talk philosophy together with a minimum of bitterness.  This is a good group I’m teaching this semester, already willing to fight for philosophical points and hear other folks do the same.  I imagine our continued exploration of Plato and Boethius and the big questions that those writers bring to the mind will be some good times.



Filed under Plato, teaching

3 responses to “We had to have the sex talk, or Prostitutes and Pastries, 2008

  1. A gentleman once learnedly said to me: did you know that all ancient Greek men were gay?” I responded with “Yeah, it’s a wonder that there’s any Greeks around today.”

    He didn’t get it.

  2. You might get a kick out of this: I had both classes look at a footnote that notes the gender of the word “lover” in the phrase “Glaucon’s lover” (both the name and the lover are masculine), and then the next sentence out of my mouth was, “Yes, Glaucon had a man-lover, and there were no homosexuals in ancient Athens.”

    When they gave me that priceless freshman look, I followed up with, “There weren’t any heterosexuals either.”

  3. Ah, the Victorians: “Hey everybody! Let’s name things, so we can readily identify that which is different from us! That’ way, we’ll know who to hate, yet secretly desire!”

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